Limping along – the Pitchford Inquiry struggles to find its stride
It has been an interesting fortnight or so for those of us following the undercover policing scandal, not least because of the rather spectacular downfall of ex-spycop Andy Coles. We return to that in a later article, but for now we're looking at the damp squib rulings in relation recent hearings.
Still beset by procedural matters, the Pitchford Inquiry is looking like a poor legacy for its Chair. Things looked up briefly during the public hearings of 5th and 6th April, when it seemed the incessant delays of the Metropolitan Police would be challenged. In person and through their representatives, those spied upon made not only strong pleas to speed up matters, but raised various other aspects that would make the inquiry more inclusive overall. Many of these were practical suggestions around matters such as the venue; others covered how the ‘non-police / state core participants’ (NPSCPs) could themselves assist and move the Inquiry along.
Pitchford himself came down hard on the police with stinging criticism. However, although he attributed all their delays to incompetence, he (somewhat naively) refused to accept that any of the delays may have been deliberate. The police, pre-empting pressure from the inquiry, submitted ambitious new timetables, bringing forward the release of some information. This was a ray of hope that some progress would be made, but it trickled out that the Inquiry itself may hit Chilcot-level timescales, with a reporting date of 2022 mooted.
Yet despite all the preparation, Pitchford’s ruling on the April hearings took three weeks to emerge. When it was released a fortnight ago it received little attention. This is unsurprising - despite its length, it contained little of substance.
The Chair knocked back all suggestions from the NPSCPs, without much consideration, and failed to address the concrete issues that had led to the hearing. Rather, he kicked things into the long grass, preferring a game of wait-and-see through dealing with things on a case by case basis.
The Metropolitan Police had offered a much revised timetable with an early tranche of restriction order applications to be in place by 1st June, another in August and the entirety of all 150 relating to the Special Demonstration Squad by 1st October. Not entirely satisfactory as far as the NPSCPs were concerned, but it was a timetable at least.
Has a timetable been set?
So there was surprise when directions on timetables were absent from the recent ruling. Rather, Pitchford waited a further three weeks, yet more consultation apparently needed. There was no recognition of the irony that the main thing that the hearings were meant to address, directions on revising the steadily collapsing timetable on restriction orders around officers identities, was itself postponed.
Those directions have just been delivered , six months since it became obvious the Metropolitan Police were falling behind drastically. They don’t cover all the undercovers, but only 71 former Special Demonstration Squad officers. On the first of each month until September, the Metropolitan Police has to provide the applications and all supporting evidence for orders on anonymity for tranches of specific officers.
It is one month shorter a timetable than originally proposed, but covers only half the 150 officers the Met were prepared to offer. There is no timetable for the others as yet, but presumably they will not now be released until after October. Non-state core participants still have to digest the implications of this - yet again they are curious as to why Pitchford is being so lenient on the police.
So, while the Inquiry hasn’t quite tripped itself up, it cannot be said to be striding along.
A mini-storm brewing
The Inquiry is facing a mini-storm of issues with the convergence of the election, the ongoing delays and the imminent departure of its Chair due to health issues.
A strategic review to present to the Home Secretary is still being prepared, including a revised timetable for the Inquiry as a whole. We understand that this review could not be completed until after the directions were delivered. However, with Parliament dissolved for the elections, there is no Home Secretary able to deal with it until mid-June at the earliest. And much will rest in the hands of whomever holds that ministerial position.
Lobbying appears to have already begun, with Operation Herne head Mick Creedon speaking out just before retirement, to say he expects that the scope of the Inquiry will be restricted. Unsurprisingly, this has gone down badly in various quarters, as yet further evidence that the police remain in the mindset that reputation is more important than dealing with the institutional abuse of the spycop units.
As yet, there is no news as to who will be replacing Pitchford and rumours are that there are not many candidates coming forward to take on the job. Thus, just when the Inquiry needs a strong and firm hand to control the police, it has entered a period of deep uncertainty. Again, the appointment of any successor will itself depend on the Home Secretary.